Making comfrey glycerite

I am enamoured with the idea of a farm factory -not a factory farm, rather a farm that produces not only food products, but many of our industrial, and medical products.

IMG_3700

This was of course the case years ago, when practically everything but metal and minerals was derived from plants, usually from very close to home. Today, we have upped our standards, migrated to other resources, whatever you may call it, and grown accustomed to products that are mostly derived from petroleum. Machines convert and contort the molecules of this petroleum into the most exotic forms, mimicking everything from plastics to essential oils.

I am enamoured by the idea of plants transforming a raw material of sunlight and air into the products we use today. The fact is that plants, deriving hydrogen and carbon from the air, can and do serve many of these advanced functions as hydrocarbons in petroleum, minus much of the toxicity and detriment to ecology.

Of all the plants commonly used, comfrey has some of the most potential as a sunlight and air converting living contraption. Beyond any refinement of the contraptions used today, it yields excellent mulch for fertility and weed control (see my work in Mastering the Growing Edge for these functions), but also medical products.

Comfrey contains allantoin -a molecule which, in the human body, acts as a cell proliferant, i.e. helps tissue regenerate faster. Its use in this sense is ancient. Although this has not helped it in the present day, as it came out of the dark ages with plenty of superstition clogging its public image. But fast forward to the World Wars and mountains of comfrey were coming out of farmer’s fields for its patently proven ability to heal the wounds of war.

 

To apply these benefits, I usually grab a leaf, squeeze the midrib, and find a clear liquid gel appearing at the end of the open stem. It’s surprising how much of this can be applied, as it absorbs quickly. With multiple applications, many wounds that have befallen me have healed without even the slightest visible scar.

IMG_2121

Before I go too far, and my trained herbalist friends reading this have to lecture me again on the delicacy of herbal healing, you shouldn’t apply comfrey to wounds or diagnose yourself without consulting a trained medical professional. Comfrey does have some contraindications for its use. For instance, if a wound is infected, or not cleaned, comfrey is not the herb for the job.

I’ll offer one situation comfrey was especially helpful to me: I was at a client’s, by myself, cutting a long, long row filled with some of the biggest, most beautiful comfrey when the blade I was using gave me a morbid bite. The wound was on my thumb, and penetrated even into the nail. Out in the middle of a field, I decided to gamble with my life (as it seems I often do) and staunch the bleeding with some yarrow (Alchillea millefolium), then got on with cutting comfrey, applying gel from the stems over and over again as the wound sucked it up.

You might call that quite a rash decision, which is why I don’t recommend anyone do the same. To this day I can’t even find a scar.

Assume you do have the green light for comfrey’s use from a trained medical professional, but aren’t in the middle of a comfrey patch? It is possible to infuse an oil, glycerine, or alcohol with this comfrey gel for long-term storage, and quick, simple application.

Such processing may sound complicated at first, but just the other day I made a comfrey glycerite you may find surprisingly simple.

I gather fresh, true comfrey (Symphytum officionalis) in early morning, simply rip off the stem, and upper parts of the leaves, leaving the lower parts where bugs and dead leaves accumulate.

I took a small portion of this big bundle, twisted and ripped the stems into 4 inch lengths, and placed in a stainless steel bowl. I poured certified organic glycerine over this (derived from organic soybeans) and began to knead the comfrey leaves with the glycerine. At first, the mixture went very dry, then became very wet. The clear glycerine turned green as comfrey gel began to spew from the crushed stems.

IMG_5138

Once this first bundle was crunched, I added another, mixed, crushed until moist, and repeated. The whole bundle broke down to a very small amount, and the glycerine turned a reddish-black-brown from all the comfrey stuffed into it. It actually resembled iodine.

IMG_5136

To get all the goodness from this slurry, a press would have been helpful. Lacking that, I simply gather all the comfrey to one side of the container, and pressed until I lifted myself off the floor. The glycerite oozed from the mess into the empty side of the bowl and could be easily poured through a sieve into mason jars. After much gymnastics, I got well over a quart.

With so much of the stuff, I intend to supplement the Bovidine© my parents use for the teats of their dairy cows for at least the post milking teat-dip. Another portion of it I mixed with unrefined wheat germ oil, several essential oils, and tinctures for a mixture I apply to my skin daily. Good stuff.

It is likely many more products could be derived from comfrey alone if we applied ourselves to its study. As such, it offers an opportunity to fill a vital role in a more sustainable, healthy future.

IMG_5139

Notes on Aronia (How does it taste?)

I'm sure many have partial shade, perhaps wet areas around their yard, they desparately wish they could plant the North American native Aronia in, but wonder about the reports on taste? 

Or perhaps you've never heard of the plant to begin with. A. melonacarpa, A. prunifolia, and A. arbutifolia are often considered ornamentals for their blazing, orange-red leaves shown off in fall. They can tolerate salt to the point many authorities recommend planting them as a privacy hedge by the road. In cold climates, where salt is spread for ice and snow, most plants in this area would be salted to death. It can abide a decent amount of shade, and doesn't mind moist soils, and blooms rather late in the season helping it slide its flowers by frosts even in low areas. All this is especially attractive when reading reports of a mature plant producing 20 lbs of dark blue, highly nutritious berries every year. 


I suspect they are right on that point. I have a couple in the food forest; and one, this year, although only two feet tall and two twigs wide, has made several healthy, dark blue fruit clusters. 

I think many are put off by the common name for these plants -"chokeberries. " Statements in shrub books that say 'The fruit is unattractive to birds, so stays on the bush for months" also cast a shadow of doubt. What's the point of tons of fruit in poorer sites if it's inedible?

I was quite excited to see the fruit from this "Viking" cultivar (Aronia prunifolia) because I could finally taste some fruit myself. 

I found the taste quite mild compared to what I expected. Really, it's almost bland, and rather dry, with white inner pulp, and a couple crunchy seeds. A pure sourness twinged in the background. 

I don't have the average palate though, because I don't eat any sucrose sugar, and am sparing with even unrefined sweeteners, so find pleasure in many food others find repulsive. To give a more trustworthy report, I took the copious harvest and handed them out to my sugar seeking siblings. 

Invariably their faces scrunched up. One said she had to force herself to swallow, another said it reminded him of pomegranate (including the seed) with a touch of blueberry. My mother had come across the dish of them when I wasn't around, ate one, and apparently spit hers out promptly. 

I really have no problems eating more of these for their health benefits. To quote: 

Aronia berries contain higher levels of antioxidants, polyphenols, and anthocyanins than elderberries, cranberries, blueberries, grapes, and most other fruit.

-see the rest of the article here.

I'm sure also that a little cooking and flavor work on these rather bland fruits could do something for them. They are so dry I can see them sucking any added flavor like a sponge. 

The next time you are at a nursery then, keep an eye out for one of these Aronia species. As they are self fertile, and quite willing to grow, it is likely most yards will have a spot that can grow out these happy shrubs to productive fruiting. I'll update when I have more than one handful in the coming years and can play around with flavor. I have a feeling it will be well worth the wait.

Taste of chaos

Years ago, a hillside was tidied up. An apple tree growing there was pruned, grass around it ripped up. At the roots of the tree, clear plastic was laid, a layer of black plastic was laid over this,  on top of this was laid colored woodchips

Alone, surrounded by short, browning grass in the heat of summer, its lower limbs sawed off, the apple tree died.

The owner changed. A new hand touched the wounds on this mortal tree, felt sorry, pulled back the layers of plastic, let the grass grow wild.


It was chaos. Briars and thorns grew up amidst the grass. Alongside these were fruit trees, vines, and shrubs.

Today I walked up the stone steps of this hillside, followed the meandering path that cuts through the long grass, and grasped one of many rusty-red peaches dripping from my trees.

Several of the peaches are fruiting abundantly this year. Because I have several kinds, some are ripe now, others a couple of months from now.


A fruit here, a fruit there has been the norm for years. This year there are just loads of fruit, beyond fresh eating, from goumi, gooseberry, saskatoon, currant. I often emerge from the food forest with fruits and berries for others to try.  Some look at the fruit, look at the food forest, look at me puzzled and ask: “Where did you get those?”

I have actually done the least in the food forest this year than any year before. I haven’t even mowed much of it. The rose bushes and blackberries I let grow up in the back of the food forest actually provided some fine mulch when I trimmed them back.


The amorpha and comfrey provided some very nice mulch also. I mainly mowed beside the road in order to mulch a new bed. Yet, as I walk around, plucking clusters of shining sweetness, I‘m quite pleased to see my beds are expanding themselves. Within the beds, several plants have achieved some of the most lush growth yet, with the turnip rooted chervil way above my head, and forming new patches in new beds.

To bite into the dewy sweetness of a fruit warm with sunlight here is unlike that of anywhere else. All fruit is a process. It is the workings of a place, coming to such a refined state as food. To bring in a fertilizer here, and bring in a spray there, is like making a patchwork of places and processes, in my mind. I much prefer fruits with vibrant flavor from comfrey mulch growing at the trees’ feet,  (comfrey mulch and tea does produce a notably rich flavor in garden vegetables too) and the spice of essential oils wafting around the air from such pest confusers as oregano or Spiraea.


I’ve had the privilege of working with chaos after letting it back into the garden. I think it’s got the idea of what I’m after. At this point in the food forest’s development, I am sure the chaos quite eagerly gets to work as I walk away from Mortal Tree, a fresh pit of a peach at its roots.

The right name for Amorpha

There are many species of Amorpha. The species I most recommend to clients, and in my published works, is A. fruticosa. This is because it is hardy in much colder regions, and grows taller -hence producing more biomass, than most species.

It is also the species that is best known worldwide. Several varieties have been bred from it making A. fruticosa one of the best foundational N-fixers on which to build gardens of lush fertility.


The fact is many of the Amorpha in Mortal Tree came from a company that listed the plant as A. californica, not fruticosa. I’ve called it that after I personally identified it. Allow me to explain:

Amorpha californica, according to the literature, grows a maximum of 6 ft. tall, and is only hardy to USDA zone seven. I’m in zone five, where this plant has lived through winters that fully reach the limit of what this zone offers, without the slightest dieback. I also find the Amorpha I have quickly pass up six foot tall. I looked into this further by researching the USDA Plant Database. Here I found information that backed my theory, and even pictures of the different seeds, which look nothing alike. Mine resembled fruticosa. I took liberty of calling the plant what I thought it was ever since.

I still have not the slightest doubt this Amorpha is Amorpha fruticosa. I don’t make such decisions lightly. My rather bold statement in Growing Amorpha that the company had incorrectly identified the plant got me more flack than I had ever expected.

My motive to make this statement was of course to dispel any fears the plant this company is selling won’t live for them if they are in zones 6 and 5. They are a major supplier of this plant, and I am telling people left and right to get it. I did try twice to contact the company to talk about this discrepancy, but their contact system never worked. I figured a small blog like myself was obviously of no consequence in their minds, but I was wrong.

The owner of the company was quite skeptical of my deduction. I was quite surprised when he showed skepticism of even the USDA’s accuracy, since the pictures clearly showed the seeds were not A. californica. He was in fact skeptical of most of the internet’s images of A. fruticosa seeds when I brought them up as examples. The only authority he considered trustworthy was none other than Gerd Krussman’s Manual of Cultivated Broad-Leaved Trees and Shrubs. This of course had been out of print for years, so I wondered how I would get my hands on the volume that had Amorpha in it. Thankfully, I have connections who graciously brought all three volumes to my desk in short order.

Krussman simply confirmed everything I had read previously about the plant. But we needed to identify this plant down to the very details of the flowers before this could be resolved.

Here are the results:

Flowers laid over fruticosa illustration from Krussman

Krussman’s work was not especially helpful in identifying the seeds. The real detail that sets apart A. fruticosa flowers from californica is the width of the petal, and spots on the californica flowers for what the line drawing shows.

Petal next to californica illustration
Petal next to fruticosa illustration

The flowers from my plants grown from the companies seed have especially wide petals I could not even make lay flat without ripping. So I spread it as best I could on a pen tip to show the plush width and lack of spots. I’ll let you derive the ID. It seems quite evident to me.

In our conversation about the plant, there was of course suggestion that we had a hybrid on our hands. If it is, it does not show the attributes of californica in the least. Fruticosa has the broader range, the greater popularity, and most importantly, the greatest utility for sustainable agriculture systems. I hope what I have done helped someone find success in this blossoming branch of agriculture through confident use of this amazing plant.

What does GKH need to self seed?

The popular perennial spinach good king henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is pretty difficult to germinate. Under Making sense of wild seeds I found how hard some fellow perennial vegetable gardeners have worked to eek out nothing but empty pots of this plant. In my own experience, a hundred seeds will likely yield as high as twenty, and as low as one or two seedlings.

When I established this plant in Mortal Tree, I hoped the seed would suit itself, and sprout on its own. I’d transplant whatever appeared. Such serendipitous propagation eluded me for years, until last year, when I moved them.

Next to the patch this year, I was ecstatic to see a moderately thick patch of the sprouts!

This is a southwest facing slope, but has a small windbreak of plants in front of it. The bed is in its second year. The grass mulch I laid to start it still covers the ground. We also had an extremely mild winter. In general, I think this plant likes really temperate conditions, prefering cool over heat, moisture over dryness.

I hope this conjures some images in your mind of areas in your garden that might suit this plant. It really is quite a nice perennial vegetable. I call it, The better broccoli, for its delicious flower buds. With seeds growing themselves now, I plan on having a lot more of this food in the very near future.

How your food can grow from air

I gave a talk at my family farm’s plant sale two weeks ago, that was supposed to center around PASSIVE Gardening. I thought it would be rather tacky to give a condensed version of the book, so decided to give a side glance of the method, by explaining the little known art of pulling nutrients from air. This is actually the basis of the method in my mind; but I often get some queer looks when I explain it that way. I’d love to know your take on it.

“I’d like to offer something rather uncommon in the gardening world…..”

View the talk here

IMG_3763.JPG

The why of fruit thinning

I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.

13217562 - close up of bee pollinating apple blossom
photo by Jenella

Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.

IMG_3816

I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger, and better shaped. If I had waited for the tree to pair down the fruits itself, it would have divided that nourishment between all those extra apples that would never stay on the tree anyway.

IMG_3815

Is there a drawback to this unnatural thinning? Perhaps.

When plucking off the fruits I noticed a few had codling moth damage. I have gotten fine harvests of apples from my trees, with very little, if any, codling moth damaged in years past. Whether this is an especially good year for codling moth population or not might explain this damage. Or perhaps the tree had dropped much of the fruit with codling moth damage so I never noticed? It quickly occurred to me the tree grows the extra fruit in part to increase the chances at least one will make seed -as codling moths eat the seeds of the apples they infest.

IMG_3813

Codling moths have several generations through a season, so we will see if the moths come back for more later.

Another effect of thinning apples is more regular fruiting. The seeds in each fruit create a hormone that blocks fruiting the next year. Some varieties of apple are notorious for their violent fruiting cycles -one year not a fruit on the tree, the next (or year after that) the branches break for the myriad fruit clogging the works. By thinning, a moderate amount of hormone is produced every year, allowing a moderate amount of fruit every year.

Perhaps such staggered fruit production in un-thinned apples is a tactic for cutting down on codling moth population?

As is, thinning delivers better results for me. But my trees are also quite small -just barely above my head. Thinning falls into what I call pleasurable interaction with the food forest, or work I enjoy, and usually only takes five minutes or so to complete.

I may quit it in years to come, and just trade thinning time and larger fruit for hacking out the good hunks from myriad smaller fruits. Masanobu Fukuoka, when his students asked how they could grow good apples without equipment and sprays, said to simply feed the poor quality fruit the students thought eminent to pigs. I’m not so skeptical as Fukuoka’s students; I have seen my trees produce quite healthy fruit already, so we’ll see what they give as the system builds. Below are some of my Fuji apples last year.

IMG_1650

You may wonder how the heck massive orchards ever thin their fruit one by one. By machine? No, by chemicals. Hormones in trees largely dictate the quality and growth of the fruit. We have developed an array of synthetic hormones, of which there are no counterparts in nature, that cause apple trees to drop their fruit. Run some experiments to properly calibrate the dosage, and you have thinned trees by simply spraying. Some of the hormones they have developed even increase the cell proliferation process beyond what the fruit tree offers, resulting in abnormally large fruit. I’ll let you research the health effects of these synthetic hormones.

When I first came across this information years ago, I went on a long search for an equivalent that could be derived from plants. I didn’t come across one, or any information on a hormone pathway that could cause the fruit to drop, accept for stressing a tree, or simply reducing pollination. I am suspicious there is an even more elegant answer:

I find that increasing the health of trees and their ecology in general can can at times truly transform their character. Mortal Tree is still a long ways from being notably fertile. But Fruiting factors are building on their own in some places. So perhaps the good effects will get out of hand, and produce some good results I never would have expected.